London - Natalie Westwell closed her eyes and allowed a long breath to escape her clenched teeth as a contraction gripped her body. One more push, and her baby would be born.
Her husband Ian was poised at the side of the birthing pool set up in the marital bedroom, ready to rub her back and proffer tea, hugs and encouragement, as their second child was brought safely into the world.
It was a touching, intimate tableau of 21st-century childbirth, and one familiar to millions of couples around the UK as the gradual shift in antenatal practices over the past 50 years has seen fathers take an active part in the birth of their children.
But this mother-of-five, from East Riding, in Yorkshire, went further than that. When the 37-year-old businesswoman gave birth to daughter Xanthia in October last year, not only were the midwife, her husband Ian and children present, but also her mother, Kath, and best friend, Carrie. Even the next-door neighbours, Martin and Anne Cymbalist, popped round to join the throng of spectators.
It was a gathering that would have had all the markings of a middle-class tea party, were it not for the heavily pregnant hostess in the corner, on all fours, puffing quietly through her contractions.
Most would see Natalie’s choice as bizarre. After all, mothers generally prefer this most private of events to take place in front of no one other than their partner and a medical professional.
But Natalie insists that inviting her neighbours, closest friends and family to witness her labour was a life-affirming experience, and one she hopes will encourage prospective moms-to-be that home births are nothing to be scared of - indeed, they can be convivial and fun for all.
‘What can be more beautiful for a child than to see a new life come into the world? Or your own mother, who has nursed and raised you?
‘It is a wonderful, bonding experience. And, for me, looking around and seeing the faces of people I love was a magical experience.’
It’s fair to assume those feelings of love did not extend to the two-man film crew who were also there to record the event.
The pair had been approached by a documentary maker filming a series on nursing who was keen to capture this new trend for giving birth in front of friends and family.
‘The TV crew were incredibly discreet and respectful,’ says Natalie, and she doesn’t mind a bit - indeed she’s proud - that the footage will be on national TV, and viewed by millions, in a few days’ time.
Yet Natalie, who runs her own business supplying activity packages to care homes, is adamant she is no exhibitionist.
‘I’m really not, although reading this, most people would say I am,’ she says. ‘I’m one of those people who appears very confident on the outside, but inside I’m just the same as everyone else.
‘I am not massively confident about my body, either - in fact, the only time I am happy with it is when I am pregnant. But the beauty of a water birth is that it does allow you a certain amount of privacy, everything is discreet and underwater.
‘I really could not be one of those women on [TV programme] One Born Every Minute, lying on a bed, with a camera pointed at my privates - that most certainly is not for me.
‘And as for having our neighbours in the room, they are really, really good friends and they wanted to be there to share the event with me. They jumped at the chance to join us, and it was wonderful having them there.
‘We were chatting and drinking tea. The atmosphere was fun and relaxed, and what a better way to bring a child into the world?’
As for the children - Megan, 19, Tristan, ten, Star, nine, and 20-month-old Kade - Natalie says they weren’t traumatised by what they saw.
‘I am very quiet when I give birth, I make a conscious decision for there not to be any “blue air” in the room when my baby takes its first breath, and I wouldn’t want to scare the others by swearing and shouting.
‘The children were very excited to be a part of it all and said it was the most amazing thing they’d ever seen.’
Because it was a home birth, intimate examinations were kept to a minimum, and Natalie made sure they were done in private to spare anyone any embarrassment.
Next-door neighbour Martin, a 58-year-old photographer, admits he was initially a little concerned when Natalie asked him and his wife, Anne, 61, if they’d like to join her and Ian for the birth. ‘We are really close friends, but I was a bit embarrassed at first,’ he says.
‘It didn’t surprise me one bit to be asked, though; Natalie and Ian are both free-thinkers and do things others would never consider.
‘We had weeks and months to get used to the idea, and we quickly came round. Although I was there as a friend, once I was in the room I switched into “professional” mode and all awkwardness and embarrassment went out the window.
‘I’d never seen a live birth before, except on TV. I didn’t even see the births of my own daughters, 33 and 35 years ago, so I found it absolutely fascinating.
‘I have always been interested in nature, and this is nature at its very, very best. I remember watching that little baby as she was born and thinking how fragile we humans are, and how fantastic nature is in creating us. There really is nothing better.’
A passionate ambassador for home births, Natalie is certainly qualified to pass judgment on the different options available to women. Both her older two children were born in hospital, with only a midwife in attendance.
‘The first time I gave birth, I found the whole experience very uncomfortable,’ she recalls. ‘It was a totally straightforward birth in terms of there being no complications, but I felt like a statistic.
‘By the time I had Tristan, I was older, I’d been through it before and I felt more able to cope - plus I had a very supportive, lovely midwife, which makes all the difference. But, even so, I still couldn’t shake off the feeling that birth should somehow feel different, less clinical.’
By her late 20s, following the break-up of her relationship with her two elder children’s father, Natalie had started a new relationship with Ian, who runs a cleaning business, after he moved into the house next door.
With no children of his own, Ian was anxious to start a family. The couple adopted daughter Star from South Africa and, two-and-a-half years ago, Natalie became pregnant with Kade.
From the moment she saw the positive line on the pregnancy testing kit, Natalie knew that she wanted to give birth at home - with as many friends and family around her as she could gather.
‘If you are a low-risk pregnancy, then a home birth can be a far more relaxing experience, and having my family and friends around makes me feel secure,’ she says.
Initially Ian was not enthusiastic about the idea, not because he didn’t relish the thought of sharing the moment of the birth of his first child with a whole rabble of on-lookers, but purely for pragmatic reasons.
‘I was more worried about what would happen if anything went wrong,’ he says. ‘We’re 40 minutes from the nearest hospital, but we talked it through and, in the end, I had to trust Natalie’s instincts.
Kade was born in June 2011, weighing a bouncing 9lb 11oz. His mother had spent the early part of her labour chatting with neighbours before retiring to the birthing pool - with her children, her two best friends and her mom in attendance.
‘It was a magical experience and I felt as in control as I’d ever been,’ she recalls. ‘It was a long labour. I started in the late afternoon and I didn’t give birth until 4am, but I was really active. I played football in the back garden with the other kids and I even had the neighbours over for a cup of tea.
‘When the time came, my husband was in the water with me, the children were in the same room. It was so lovely that I wanted to do it again.
‘It was wonderful for all of us, particularly for the children, who were able to share in the miracle of life. For them to watch a little brother or sister coming into the world is irreplaceable. Tristan even cut the cord. It was very special for all of them.’
So when, just a year after Kade was born, Natalie realised she was pregnant again, she knew exactly the birth she wanted. She was in the final few weeks of her pregnancy when she received a call from a television film crew asking if she might consider allowing her birth to be filmed. Natalie instantly agreed.
‘Someone had dropped out from their project and they were panicking,’ she says. ‘The crew had been given my name. I had no misgivings at all. Since Kade’s birth I was on a bit of a mission to spread the word about home birth, and I felt this was the perfect way to do it.’
Not surprisingly, Ian and Natalie’s mother, 65-year-old Kath Conway, were both a little more wary.
‘Kade’s birth was fantastic, but there’s a difference between giving birth in front of family and friends and doing it in front of an audience of millions,’ says Ian.
‘I needed to ensure we could set a couple of boundaries, such as if there was anything we were uncomfortable with we could stop at once. But once we had actually met the film crew, I felt able to trust them and relax.’
Kath, though, just couldn’t see the sense of it.
‘I was quite freaked out by the sheer number of people in the room when Kade was born, but that’s because I’m quite shy and Natalie’s not,’ she says.
Undeterred, Natalie ploughed ahead with her plans - which unfolded rather sooner than she’d expected, when she went into labour a week early, and just hours after meeting the film crew for the first time.
‘For modesty’s sake, I chose to wear a bikini top throughout,’ says Natalie. When her contractions started at 3am, the film crew were summoned, and by 6.45am, everyone was gathered by the birthing pool to await the baby’s arrival.
‘I was aware of the cameras, but they weren’t intrusive,’ she says. ‘The only time I felt mildly embarrassed was right at the end when I was on all fours, and my bare bottom was poking out the water!’
Xanthia came hurtling into the world just 20 minutes later, weighing a healthy 7lb 13oz - and the moment was captured for ever on film, and applauded by everyone around her.
It’s a brave woman indeed who seeks to share these most primal and unflattering images of herself with the nation.
But Natalie is far from alone: it would appear that in this digital age, where every facet of human existence can be electronically shared in an instant on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, nothing is considered private any more.
The growing popularity of TV shows such as One Born Every Minute, which is set in a Yorkshire maternity ward, and Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies, goes to prove the British have long lost their prudishness and will strip off for any audience and pose at any angle.
Over in the U.S., exhibitionism has reached even greater heights: in 2011 performance artist Marni Kotak caused a national outcry when she gave birth in front of a live audience at a New York art gallery.
She’d entitled her ‘performance’ The Birth Of Baby X, saying: ‘I hope that people will see that human life is the most profound work of art, and that therefore giving birth - the greatest expression of life - is the highest form of art.’
Two years earlier, Sara Morishiqe Williams, the wife of Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, was one of the first to share every intimate detail of her birth on the networking site, even pausing between her contractions to tweet ‘epidural please’, bringing widespread condemnation.
In Italy, meanwhile, Big Brother took a giant step over the line of decency when it followed a former contestant into hospital when she gave birth on live TV in 2009.
It was something glamour model Katie Price said she wanted to do when she gave birth to her first son, Harvey, in 2002, although in the end she opted for the privacy of a Brighton maternity ward.
As for Natalie, just 12 weeks after the birth of Xanthia, she is already planning her next voyage into motherhood.
‘Ian isn’t that keen, but I am adamant I want to do it again - although I will give my body chance to recover,’ she says.
And should it happen there will, again, no doubt be an unorthodox gathering to mark the occasion.- Daily Mail